Joe Kelly Guthrie remembers the day like it was yesterday: The day that his father, Hal Guthrie, sat himself, his older brother and his sister in the family kitchen in front of an assortment of condiments.
The mission was simple: create a sauce to go alongside their newly-popularized chicken tenders. The then 9-year-old Joe embarked on his in-home competition versus his siblings, and while his brother prevailed with victory, Joe states that he still recalls the gesture that confirmed the winning and original Guthrie’s tender sauce.
“My dad took the tip of his pinky and he stuck it right in the sauce in front of my brother and I remember how it went like it just happened today,” Guthrie said. “He looked us right in our face and said, “That’s it ... that’s the sauce.”
And so it began: Guthrie’s was on its way to becoming the first chicken finger franchise in the world. For the Guthrie family, that dream-to-reality was far beyond their humble beginnings as a family-owned restaurant.
While the close-knit franchising company has deep roots in the Auburn community, the story of Guthrie's as a restaurant began with a different scene.
The original Guthrie’s was opened in Haleyville, Alabama in 1965. Hal Guthrie, an Auburn alumni of the graduating class of 1962, alongside his wife began operations with a full-service menu, featuring items such as whole chicken, hamburger steaks and a salad bar. It wasn’t until 1982 that, with the convincing of Joe’s oldest brother, Hal was moved to take Guthrie’s journey down the road to the Loveliest Village on the Plains.
The second location of Guthrie's began as the site of a former Sonic building. According to Joe, with a few renovations, business quickly began to boom at the new Auburn location.
“We took a partition and put it right down the middle of the building, opened it up and added booth seating for 54 people,” Guthrie said. “It had to be one of the world’s smallest kitchens and, for that very reason, we didn't bring our whole menu.”
That decision to bring only a few items — hamburgers, steak sandwiches and a relatively new phenomenon, chicken fingers — soon launched into a new venture, one that the Guthries family had not yet explored but were more than excited to set the precedent.
“My brother noticed that the majority of the sales were in these new chicken fingers. At the time, we had only been selling them for four years since 1978,” Guthrie said. “He convinced my father to cut some of the least-selling items from the menu and it worked.
“The chicken finger percentage sales just kept going up for this small little store in downtown Auburn and nobody even knew what a chicken finger was. We would have to explain it to them.”
Within the first two months, the family made the executive decision to cut the last remaining item, hamburgers, from the menu. By August of 1982, history was made in Auburn, Alabama. Auburn, home to the Auburn Tigers, the War Eagle battle cry and world-class Toomer’s Lemonade, would forever be known as home to the world’s first chicken finger restaurant.
“That’s all we served was the chicken finger box and the chicken finger sandwich.” Guthrie said. The chicken finger box quickly became a popular selection for customers featuring Guthrie’s golden-fried chicken fingers, cold cut french fries, coleslaw, Guthrie’s famous sauce and a slice of Texas toast.
As Auburn began falling in love with Guthrie’s chicken fingers, by 1983, the Guthries family set their sights on expanding the chicken-finger craze to the location of the oldest football rivalry in the South — Athens, Georgia. Located on the edge of the University of Georgia’s campus on Baxter Street, the second chicken fingers-only location of Guthrie's opened in the spring of 1984 as the first drive-thru location for the franchise.
Business was booming — the Guthries were looking to expand and in the market for a second location in Auburn. Setting their sights on the Taco Casa restaurant in the Kroger Parking lot on North Dean Road, the Guthries were met with surprise when they found out the building had already been leased to the first of what Joe refers to as “copycat restaurants.”
“My father put some earnest money down on a Friday and on a Monday, they called back and said unbeknown to them, someone had already leased the location,” Guthrie said. “We looked up and up popped our first copy cat selling our box of chicken tenders, fries and special sauce.
"From there, we started noticing several copies of the original popping up all over."
While Guthrie recognizes that the chicken finger industry is a five-billion-dollar-a-year industry, he can’t help but feel a sense of pride knowing that Guthrie's set the standard.
“That’s something I really want people to know — that this billion dollar industry was created right here in downtown Auburn,” Guthrie said. “Auburn was the birthplace of chicken finger restaurants.”
According to Joe, it was only right that Guthrie's continues to build its empire in Auburn with a new precedent for the town — the first free-standing Guthrie's location in Auburn.
This new location, which will be at the corner of East Glenn Avenue and North College Street, is less than 500 yards from the original location. Joining five other Guthrie’s locations spread throughout Auburn and Opelika, the downtown Auburn location will be staying true to the traditional Guthrie's experience.
“We are a fast-casual dining experience. We hope you would get very good and quick service,’ Guthrie said. “So you should get your plate within five or six minutes and it should be hot.
“We pride ourselves on our recipe for our chicken finger breading and our sauce. I call it now the most-copied sauce and box in the world.”
The franchise is planning to have a traditional drive-thru, seating for 100 to 120 people, a walk-up window with patio seating, delivery services and late-night hours to accommodate students living in the downtown Auburn area. With franchising happening all over the country, the Guthrie's corporation is currently in the process of opening 40 new stores alongside the downtown Auburn location in the next 12 to 14 months.
With construction pushing full-steam ahead, local Auburn resident and students can look forward to visiting the new location in spring 2021. And as operations continue to prosper, Joe Guthrie wants the Auburn community to know just how special they are to the family.
“We love Alabama and are proud to be from Alabama but Auburn holds a special place in our heart,” Guthrie said. “Auburn is home.”